Guest Post: Considering the BDS Movement from a Human Rights Perspective

11 February 2014, 2222 EST

The following is a guest post by Joel R. Pruce, a post-doctoral fellow in human rights studies at the University of Dayton. 

The transnational movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel continues to capture headlines and prompt crucial debate on the status of Palestinian claims to national self-determination and individual human rights protection, and the global public’s moral responsibility with respect to the ongoing conflict. Recent episodes, including the academic boycott passed by the American Studies Association and the SodaStream/ScarJo/Oxfam love triangle, signal that BDS is penetrating discourse and influencing decisions of prominent actors. Since sufficient vitriolic ink on this topic has been spilled prior to the current contribution, the approach here is to propose a critique of the BDS movement from a universal human rights perspective, in order to provide a consensus-based reference point with which to orient reasonable debate, while engaging with the movement itself in its own terms.


The BDS movement and its major spokespersons communicate fluently and comfortably in human rights vernacular and in order to evaluate its conception of human rights, I suggest focusing on the movement’s claims in the area of the right to self-determination. The baseline metric for conducting this analysis should be whether or not BDS’s human rights claims adhere to universal principles: do their claims value all people’s human rights equally? Since at the heart of the BDS movement is the desire to see a sovereign Palestinian state, we would want to see universal support for self-determination. However, while BDS traffics heavily in human rights talk, the substance and consequence of its policy demands do not reflect a universal position.


The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at its core a conflict about opposing claims to national self-determination. If we recognize Zionism as the Jewish nationalist project (rather than a colonial or racist ideology) and the goals of BDS as gaining recognition and implementation of the Palestinian nationalist project, then transcending the conflict from a univeralist perspective entails reconciling both claims. If both groups express legitimate claims as historically oppressed peoples and, therefore, deserve and require self-government for survival, then the mission becomes to negotiate along these lines, which is generally how these negotiations proceed. The BDS movement does not recognize Jewish claims to self-determination—not on the territory-formerly-known-as-the-British-Mandate-of-Palestine or anywhere else. I do not see BDS goals as compatible with a universal vision of the right to self-determination, but rather express a narrow, specific set of interests and priorities at the expense of the welfare of others.


And that’s fine. Interest groups are perfectly entitled to advocate for their causes, but to use universal language in the process is disingenuous, suggesting that their discursive use of human rights norms should be modified to accurately account for its particularism. BDS is the transnational face of Palestinian rights, which, in this articulation, contradict Jewish/Israeli rights. If rights-claims have the consequence of privileging one group over another, they are not universal in character and they are not human rights. More importantly, the outcomes proposed by BDS could well negatively impact Israeli rights in such a way that would call their current interventions into question. If BDS is successful in ending the occupation, then a plan should be in place for protecting the rights of Jews. A human rights perspective dictates that any outcome safeguard the rights of those most vulnerable, who upon this hypothetical future event would be the demographic minority within Palestine and the region. It is possible that certain versions of a one-state solution could respect Jewish self-determination, while providing minority rights accommodations, and those would have to be front and center in any democratic transition (although BDS does not take a stand on a future solution, which makes having this conversation more complicated). A politically salient and morally sound human rights perspective must have an outlook that accounts for all factors—past, present, and future—and proposes a comprehensive solution that is internally coherent and genuinely faithful to the norms it espouses.


The strength of universal human rights is their capacity to highlight arbitrariness and particularism in practice. If Israel and the United States deploy human rights language, but fail to live up to their rhetorical promises, then it is beholden on activists to expose and leverage those gaps (as they regularly do). It stands to reason that activists should be held up to the same scrutiny. BDS utilizes human rights discourse for its ability to cut through partisan noise, transcend ideological barriers, and assume the high ground in heated debates. Yet, If BDS seeks to operationalize the moral force of human rights, but evades the robust commitments of this claim, then the movement is susceptible to critique along those lines.


The degree to which BDS has heightened the status of their cause and the urgent need to see Palestinian rights realized is important and undeniable. Developments on the divestment side attest to the fortitude of their position. Centrally, I take issue here with their deployment of human rights language and the way it exposes the movement to accusations of hypocrisy and particularism. I hope at least that conceptualizing the dilemma in terms of universal human rights provides a reasonable starting point from which to move forward on these complex issues.